A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks brought to light the dangers of fake IDs, federal undercover agents are still able to easily obtain genuine U.S. e-Passports using clearly fraudulent information that should have raised red flags at the State Department.
Gregory Kutz, an investigator for the Government Accountability Office, is set to testify Thursday to a Senate panel about how his team was able to get the State Department this spring to issue five of the seven e-Passports it requested using fraudulent information.
The government failed to detect such basic red flags as a fake driver's license, a 62-year-old using a recently obtained Social Security number, and the name of a dead applicant using faked identification, Kutz plans to tell the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
"State's passport issuance process continues to be vulnerable to fraud," Kutz said in prepared testimony obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Kutz plans to tell senators that State only detected two of the seven fraudulent applications "despite multiple indicators of fraud and identity theft in each application."
The sting marks the second time in two years that Kutz's office has demonstrated e-Passport problems at the State Department. Government officials had promised in 2009 to tighten up their e-Passport issuance process after the GAO obtained four genuine e-Passports through fraudulent means in 2008.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., chairman of the subcommittee, is introducing legislation Thursday to correct some of the vulnerabilities uncovered by GAO in its two security tests.
"The U.S. passport is the gold standard for identification. It certifies an individual's identity and U.S. citizenship, and allows the passport holder to travel in and out of the United States and to foreign countries, obtain further identification documents, and set up bank accounts," Cardin said. "We simply cannot issue U.S. passports in this country on the basis of fraudulent documents. There is too much at stake."
Cardin's legislation would give State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs officials who screen e-Passport applications the legal authority they've been lacking to access information in sensitive federal, state and other databases that would help them verify identities and catch fraudulent applicants.
Brenda S. Sprague, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, plans to tell the committee her department has made "significant improvements" in rooting out fraud but that the latest sting showed there was still room for improvement.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs "is dedicated to deterring and detecting passport fraud," she said, "but the fact is that we did not catch all seven fraudulent applications."
"Human error and the volume of documents that we produce annually - 13.5 million passport books and passport cards in FY 2009 - will always represent a challenge for combating fraud in the passport issuance process," Sprague cautioned.
The GAO's latest sting resulted in five genuine passports being issued based on fraudulent information and mailed to the addresses used by the undercover investigators. When State finally realized it had been the victim of a GAO sting for the second time in two years, it managed to retrieve two of the fraudulent e-Passports from the Postal Service, according to Kutz's testimony.